The Magna Carta Project

The regency government of Peter des Roches

by Professor Nicholas Vincent

19 October 1214 - 25 October 1214


17-20 Oct 1214

Corfe (Dorset)

RLC, i, 173-3b; Chronicle of the Election, 112-13

20 Oct 1214

Canford (Dorset)

RLC, i, 173b

21-22 Oct 1214

Clarendon (Wiltshire)

RLC, i, 173b-4

23 Oct 1214


RLC, i, 174

23-24 Oct 1214


RLP, 122b; RLC, i, 173, 174, 175

24-25 Oct 1214

Newbury (Berkshire)

RLP, 122; RLC, i, 174

25-27 Oct 1214

Reading (Berkshire)

RLP, 122, 123; RLC, i, 174-5

Effigy of Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, at Winchester Cathedral

Effigy of Peter des Roches, Winchester Cathedral

To understand the King's position in the autumn of 1214, we need to bear in mind not only his own recent defeats in Poitou, or the collapse of his army at Bouvines in July, but the ongoing problems of England.  These had been overseen, since John's departure in February 1214, by his justiciar, the bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches.  Des Roches, a Frenchman from the region north of Tours on the Loire, was a courtier clerk who had risen through service to Richard I and subsequently to John.  By birth he was almost certainly related to William des Roches, seneschal of Anjou.  After 1202, William des Roches had played a crucial role in the Capetian conquest and had thereafter established himself as one of the leading servants of Philip Augustus.  Peter des Roches, by contrast, went into exile with King John.  He was rewarded with the richest bishopric in northern Europe, the great see of Winchester.  As bishop, he established himself as the focus and chief patron of a group of the King's 'alien' constables, men pledged after 1204 to the reconquest of the lands in France that John had lost.1  Des Roches' appointment as justiciar, in succession to Geoffrey fitz Peter (d. 14 October 1213), is said to have been met by 'murmurings from the magnates that an alien had been advanced over them'.2  His activities are documented in detail, thanks not least to the survival of a roll of the letters that he issued as justiciar in England, from May to October 1214, stored today amongst the 'Close Rolls' of the English royal chancery.3

A number of issues loomed over Des Roches and his regency government, not least the King's recent submission to the papacy and its practical consequences.  Relations between the King and the English Church had been strained to breaking point over the past six years.  In 1214, and despite the return of the exiled clregy, the papal Interdict was still theoretically in force.  Des Roches worked alongside the papal legate, Nicholas of Tusculum, and in regular negotiation with the King in Poitou, to ensure the election of a series of royalists to vacant abbeys and bishoprics.4  To settle the damages due to clergy exiled since 1208, it was agreed that the Interdict would be lifted once 100,000 marks had been paid in compensation.  Des Roches raised a tallage from the royal demesne.  Of this, very little was handed over to the Church.  The King's military needs in Poitou and Flanders took priority.5  Instead, to preserve the peace, Des Roches and other royalists pledged in June 1214 that they would guarantee the 73,000 marks still outstanding from the 100,000 marks originally agreed, payable over the next five years.  As a result, late in June 1214, the sentence of Interdict was at last officially lifted.  Shortly thereafter, the collapse of the King's French expedition put an end to any practical possibility that the Church's money would be forthcoming.  Instead, as we shall see, the clergy began to negotiate alternative material substitutes, in the form of royal charters of privilege, many of which were to be issued a month or so after John's return to England, late in November 1214.6

In his dealings with the secular baronage, des Roches had paid particular attention to the north of England, where loyal courtiers such as Peter de Maulay, Robert de Vieuxpont and Philip of Oldcotes were promoted to inheritances or captaincies.  Until this plan collapsed in the face of opposition from the Pope and Archbishop Langton, there were moves to secure des Roches' own election as archbishop of York, and his replacement at Winchester by Richard Marsh, one of the King's more notorious clerical supporters.  In the summer of 1214, Marsh travelled the realm extorting 'blank' charters from the English monasteries by which the monks were made to disclaim any right to compensation for the damages that they had suffered since the start of the papal Interdict.7 

Ship at Sea, BL Royal MS 2 B VII f.110v

Ship at Seal, BL Royal MS 2 B VII f.110v

In the aftermath of Bouvines, not only had the Welsh opened hostilities on the Marches, but there was a genuine invasion scare.  On 5 September, des Roches sent men secretly to watch the coasts of East Anglia.8  The fear, apparently, was that the French would use Flanders as an embarkation point, employing the local merchant fleet to transport troops across the North Sea.  This explains the decision to arrest all foreign ships in English ports judged capable of transporting men and horses, and the seizure of all Flemish merchants, their ships and merchandise.  These measures may also have been intended to assist negotiations over the ransom of English prisoners taken at Bouvines.  They were soon withdrawn.  Instead, oaths were imposed upon the Flemings, not to put into hostile ports to transport cargoes to the detriment of King John.9  Even so, the outrage that the arrests and confiscations had inspired in trading communities such as London is apparent as late as June 1215.  Magna Carta clause 41 provides for the arrest of merchants and ships, but only of those coming from lands 'against us in war', a definition that would not necessarily have applied to Flanders after July 1214. 

Elsewhere, there are indications that des Roches trod warily in his dealings with the English.  As early as the summer of 1213, according to the chronicler, Roger of Wendover, the King had met with Archbishop Langton at St Albans.  There, in the hearing of many of his barons, he had sworn to uphold the good laws of Henry I, abolishing all evil customs.10  Such evil customs would undoubtedly have been deemed to include the additional sums (or 'increments') that sheriffs had previously been required to pay for their county farms.  The Pipe Roll drawn up after Michaelmas 1214, under des Roches' supervision, shows that increments were indeed dropped at some time in 1213 or 1214.11  In due course, this was a reform that was to find permanent embodiment in clause 25 of Magna CartaClause 17 of Magna Carta was to demand that routine law suits ('common pleas') were no longer to follow the King and his court but be held in a set location.  This was a condition to some extent fulfilled in 1214 with the revival of the 'Bench' as a law court in Westminster Hall, presided over by des Roches' as justiciar.  Clause 18 of Magna Carta demanded regular local assizes to deal with other routine matters of justice, a condition to some extent fulfilled in the judicial visitations of Staffordshire, Shropshire, Hampshire and Sussex undertaken by des Roches, probably in late spring or early summer 1214.12

Even so, the King's financial needs made conflict with the barons more or less inevitable.  Des Roches negotiated payments from several leading barons that would have contravened the terms later laid down by Magna Carta, as with the relief (or payment for inheritance) of 1000 marks negotiated with Robert de Vere shortly after the King's return in October 1214, or the 10,000 marks offered (although in the event not accepted) for the inheritance of the fitz Alan barony in the Welsh Marches.  An even more exorbitant fine, of 20,000 marks, had been negotiated with Geoffrey de Mandeville for his marriage and custody of the inheritance of Isabella of Gloucester, King John's divorced first wife.  The installments payable here were already in arrears by the time that John sailed for Poitou in February 1214.  Thereafter, not only were the Gloucester and Mandeville family lands taken into royal custody, but the King toyed with the idea of accepting a fine of 15,000 marks from Geoffrey de Say, longstanding claimant to the Mandeville estate.  In the aftermath of Bouvines, Geoffrey de Mandeville's lands were for the most part restored to him.  The terms for the payment of his debt were rescheduled.  In due course, perhaps not surprisingly, both Geoffrey de Mandeville and Geoffrey de Say were numbered amongst the twenty-five rebel barons of Magna Carta.13

The most controversial of all the King's new financial demands was first issued in May 1214, several weeks before Bouvines, when John had commanded des Roches to raise a scutage of 3 marks per knight's fee from all who had failed to attend the King's armies in France.  The scutage was applied to a campaign in Poitou, for which military service had not traditionally been considered obligatory.  Since the 1190s, the English barons, both clerical and secular, had argued that their service was owed only for campaigns within England, perhaps at a stretch for campaigns in Normandy.  Poitou and Flanders lay far beyond these potential obligations.  The scutage of 1214 was the eleventh such tax collected in the past sixteen years, and was levied at the highest rate yet recorded.14  To avoid unnecessary antagonism, des Roches deliberately exempted the bishops exiled during the Interdict (a leniency that was not extended to Giles de Briouze, bishop of Hereford, who was considered a personal and political enemy rather than as a 'victim' of the papal Interdict).15  Elsewhere, however, des Roches exceeded the bounds of strict necessity.  He demanded that scutage be collected from at least five baronies before they were properly restored to their heirs or the men who had fined for their custody.  Prior to Bouvines, there had been no concerted baronial resistance either to service in Poitou or to the payment of scutage.  But the defeats of July 1214 changed all this.  Most of the accounts for the scutage, due for settlement by 9 September, went by default.  The administration of the tax collapsed in the face of widespread refusal to pay.  Rather than set terms that he knew would be disobeyed, des Roches shelved the summonses for scutage owed by some of the more prominent recusants, including Robert fitz Walter, Roger de Montbegon, Eustace de Vescy and Robert de Grelley.  Fitz Walter was given a respite until at least 16 September, the others until 15 October, after the King's landing at Dartmouth.16

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle

By Sunday 19 October, the King himself was securely established at Corfe.  From there he set out on the Monday, travelling via Canford and the royal palace at Clarendon to reach Winchester on Thursday 23 October. The day after, he visited another and more recent royal palace, at Freemantle in Kingsclere. From here, he travelled northwards, across the Downs, at Newbury, to Reading and the Thames valley, en route for Westminster, eventually reached on Tuesday 28 October. Most of the business recorded for this week was routine, including settlement of debts left over from the King's time in Poitou.17 

Two things, nonetheless, are noticeable about the chancery enrolments following the King's return to England.  The first is that there was a great slowing in the rate of the issue of charters as opposed to administrative writs.  Not a single charter seems to have been issued in the two weeks following the King's return c.13 October.  The first such, granted on 28 October, bestowed a major gift of land upon the bishop of Winchester, clearly as reward for his service as regent over the past eight months.18  Meanwhile, the sudden cessation of charters may suggest caution and a determination to horde resources.  Secondly, there were perhaps problems in the transfer of duties between the chancery staff who had operated in England during the King's absence, and those now returned from Poitou.  This might explain why, from October 1214, writs previously entered in more or less strictly chronological sequence on the Close and Patent Rolls seem to have been collected and enrolled more haphazardly, at least a fortnight in arrears (business from early November being regularly interspersed amongst the letters recorded for the last two weeks of October 1214).19 

From Winchester, on 23 October, the King sent a series of golden items, including a cup, to Peter de Maulay, asking that they be kept with the King's other gold treasure, presumably at Corfe.20  This may merely reflect John's ongoing fascination with treasure and precious jewels, well known from other entries in the chancery rolls.  In the specific circumstances of 1214, it may also suggest a desire to build up a portable treasure in gold: precisely the arrangement recorded in other instances where kings or great men planned to go on crusade or other expeditions requiring that the maximum value in treasure be transported with the minimum weight.  Gold, at roughly ten times the value of silver, was the favoured medium for such transactions. 

That the King was also assembling a force of mercenaries is also suggested at Winchester, when the sheriff of Dorset was commanded to entertain four of the King's crossbowmen: 'Albus' (presumably 'Blondie'), William Gaschet, Wyot the Breton, and Laurence.21  On the following day, at Freemantle, we gain further hints of the issues that in due course were come to fruition in Magna Carta.  The King's keepers at Durham were instructed to take securities from Amabilia, the widow of Robert fitz Hugh.  Amabilia had fined 20 marks and two palfreys 'that she not be distrained to marry ... and that if she should wish to marry, this be done with our (i.e. the King's) counsel'.22  This in many ways predicts the terms of Magna Carta clause 8 ('No widow is to be distrained to marry while she wishes to live without a husband, as long as she gives security that she will not marry without our consent').  Clause 34 of Magna Carta deals with the royal writ known as 'Praecipe' (a writ opening with the command 'Order!', in Latin 'Praecipe!').  This had traditionally been employed to remove business from the courts of feudal lords into the court of the King himself.  On 24 October, the King accepted a fine of two palfreys (or riding horses, the Ford Cortinas of the thirteenth-century) offered by Stephen de Saint-Aubin for a writ of 'Praecipe' concerning two knight's fees in Devon disputed against Hugh of Chagford.  As yet, it would seem, the King continued to intrude himself into what would otherwise have been the unmediated relations between knights and their feudal overlords. 

By 25 October, now established at Reading, the King was making plans for his future movements.  The initial intention seems to have been that he remain at Reading until at least Monday 27 October, the eve of the festival of SS Simon and Jude, for which an elaborate feast was planned, and for which fish were commanded for the King's table.  From there, he intended to travel into Kent, as far as Rochester, Canterbury and Dover.23  Rather than waiting for the feast, however, the King now sped off in the direction of London, reaching Windsor on Monday 27th, and Westminster on Tuesday 28th October.


For all of this, N. Vincent, Peter des Roches: An Alien in English Politics, 1205-1238 (Cambridge 1996).


Radulphi de Coggeshall Chronicon Anglicanum, ed. J. Stevenson (Rolls ser., 1875), 168.


Printed as RLC, i, 204-13b, with a full discusson of this and other sources, in English Episcopal Acta IX, ed. N. Vincent, appendix 1.


Vincent, Peter des Roches, 90-1, 93-5.


Vincent, Peter des Roches, 102-3, 107.


Vincent, Peter des Roches, 91-3.


Vincent, Peter des Roches, 93, 95-6.


RLC, 211b.


RLP, 140-140b; RLC, i, 209b, 210b, 211, 212b, 213; introduction to Pipe Roll 16 John, p.xxv.


Rogeri de Wendover Chronica sive Flores Historiarum, ed. H.O. Cox (5 vols., English Historical Soc., 1841-4), iii, 262.


Introduction to Pipe Roll 16 John, pp.xx-xxiii, whence Vincent, Peter des Roches, 105.


Introduction to Pipe Roll 16 John, pp.xxv-xxvi; Vincent, Peter des Roches, 101, 105.


Vincent, Peter des Roches, 106.


Holt, The Northerners, 13, 98-103; Pipe Roll 17 John, 80-4.


Vincent, Peter des Roches, 99-100.


Vincent, Peter des Roches, 107-8.


RLC, 173b.


RC, 201b-202.


RLP, 122b; RLC, i, 173b-4.


RLC, i, 174.


RLC, i, 174.


RLC, i, 174.


See here the orders to Reginald de Cornhill for immediate provisions, RLC, i, 174b

King John's Diary & Itinerary